The federal government’s 2.1 million employees will get paid parental leave for the first time, a galvanizing moment in the growing movement to bring the benefit to all U.S. workers.
The benefit, which gives 12 weeks of paid leave to mothers and fathers of newborns, newly adopted children or foster children, is part of a defense bill expected to receive final congressional approval Tuesday. President Donald Trump has said he will sign it into law.
The new policy aligns the federal government with many of the country’s most powerful companies, which have been leading the charge in aggressively expanding parental leave benefits. It also could set a high standard for other employers, both because of the length of time offered and because the policy would apply to all new parents, not just birth mothers.
“It’s a game-changer,” said Dan Sprock, director of people and culture at Fairygodboss, a women’s career website in New York City that advocates for equality in the workplace.
“It’s the largest employer in the country and it will definitely have an impact on other employers who are already shifting, and it will push employers who have been more reluctant,” he said.
The U.S. remains the only industrialized country that does not federally mandate paid parental leave. The vast majority of American workers do not get paid time off to care for a new child, and that will not change with the federal policy.
Even so, it’s the first major benefit expansion for federal workers since the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave.
What it covers
Federal employees will be eligible for the benefit beginning in October 2020 if they have worked for the government at least a year. The employees are required to return to work for at least 12 weeks after they take the leave, though the government can waive that requirement for medical reasons.
“I’m so excited,” said Meredith Irby, 32, a social worker for the federal government in Little Rock, Ark. “The benefit will definitely make a huge difference. I already told my husband, ‘OK, so we can have a kid in October!’”
After unexpected complications during her pregnancy two years ago, Irby had to borrow six weeks of advance leave so she could spend time with her newborn son. That leave was finally paid back in June.
“My family planning and the decision to have another child had been revolving around the fact that I would have to save up leave for at least another year before I had enough,” she said, adding that the new federal policy “means a lot.”
One in four women go back to work within two weeks of giving birth because they can’t afford to lose the pay or the job, according to the White House.
The benefit falls short of providing paid time off to care for sick adult relatives or for their own serious medical issue, the biggest reason workers take unpaid leave under FMLA. The projected cost to the federal government is about $3.3 billion over five years, covered by the existing agency budgets.
“We are optimistic that this momentum will result in a strong, inclusive paid family and medical leave policy that covers all working people,” said Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families.
Everett Kelley, the national secretary-treasurer for American Federation of Government Employees, called the benefit a “large step in the right direction for full family leave.”
Democrats pushed for benefit
Parental leave was a priority for high-ranking Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Ivanka Trump, Trump’s daughter and adviser, also highlighted the issue.
Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney, the new chair of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, had urged the benefit for years, including a bill this year that would have also offered leave for workers needing to care for an ill family member.
Ultimately, congressional Democrats secured agreement with Republicans for a pared-down benefit without coverage for sick spouses and parents, part of a broader deal reached with backing by the White House after Trump’s proposed Space Force was included in the defense bill.
“I remember when I was pregnant with my first child, and I asked about my office’s leave policy,” Maloney said. “Do you know what they said? They said, ‘Leave? What leave? Women just leave.’ I said that I didn’t intend to leave. I intended to come back to work. And they said, ‘It’s the only time it’s ever happened.’”
“By providing this benefit for 2.1 million federal employees, not only can the federal government compete with those in the private sector who already provide it, but also hopefully spur more businesses to follow suit,” said Maloney, who held a hearing last week on expanding paid family and medical leave.
Democratic and Republicans have broadly supported the concept of family leave but differ on how to pay for it.
Several states already have paid family leave policies, including New York, California, New Jersey and Rhode Island.
Uneven coverage in the private sector
Paid parental leave has been gaining traction, particularly as companies fight for talent in one of the tightest job markets in years. But without a federal leave policy, much of the progress has benefited higher-paid white-collar workers.
Most of the top tech companies offer well over 12 weeks of paid leave, at least for birth mothers, and the picture is similar at the biggest financial and consulting firms.
Still, more than 80% of U.S. workers do not have access to any type of paid family leave. For wage earners in the bottom 25%, just 9% have access to paid family leave. The ratio is 30% for earners in the top 25%.
Industries with lower-wage workers have been slower to expand parental leave policies.
Walmart, the country’s biggest private employer, last year announced that birth mothers would get up to 16 weeks of paid leave, while other parents can take six weeks.
Overall, however, just 27% of U.S. employers offered paid parental leave in 2019, according to the annual survey by the Society of Human Resources Management.
Many retail workers have been left out of the trend, along with social workers, hospital workers, public school teachers, employees of non-profits, construction workers and scores of parents who work for smaller companies.
A win for dads, LGBT parents
As written, the new law puts the federal government on the progressive side of an ongoing debate: whether employers should give equal paid time off to parents regardless of whether they are birth mothers or considered the primary caregivers.
JP Morgan Chase, which offers 16 weeks to primary caregivers, settled a class-action suit earlier this year filed by an employee who said he was denied the time because he was a man. The investment bank later clarified that its policy is gender-neutral, but still requires employees to identify themselves as either the primary or secondary caregiver.
Goldman Sachs, meanwhile, announced in November that it would offer 20 weeks of pain leave to any new parent. At Bank of America, it’s 16 weeks.
Corporate leaders from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian have encouraged companies to adopt paid paternity leave and for men to take the full time offered.
The federal policy — which apparently does away with the distinction of a primary caregiver — falls in line with expectations that younger workers have about the parenting roles of men and women, said Loraine Harington, CEO of Catalyst, which works with top companies to promote women in the workplace. She said it also reflects the different types of families, including LGBT parents.
“It’s the current best practice for a number of reasons,” she said. Noting that her own son recently took the full four months offered to him by Microsoft to care for his newborn daughter, she added, “The more we have balance in sharing family responsibilities, the more we will enable women to be full participants in the workplace.”